Historical context of the city of Laodicea

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write” (Rev 3: 14)

Before the third century BC, the name was called Diospolis (the city of Zeus). Antiochus II* refounded it about 250-240 B.C. as a military stronghold and named it for his sister-wife Laodice [Laodike].

After the Romans conquered the region, Laodicea became a wealthy city within the province. It was a commercial center for banking and finance. During the reign of emperors Tiberius and Nero, the city suffered severe damage from earthquakes. However, the city was able to rebuild without any imperial or provincial help (Sherman 1950: 8). Tacitus wrote in his Annals, “In the same year, Laodicea, one of the famous Asiatic cities, was laid in ruins by an earthquake, but recovered by its own resources, without assistance from ourselves” (Tacitus, Annals 14: 27).

The city was famous for its fabric industry in black glossy wool, which accrued a great wealth for the city. It dominated the fabric industry in the region. Laodicea was tolerable to religious liberty. Josephus recalls how the Laodiceans sent a letter to Gaius Rabirius, proconsul of Asia, “informing him that in obedience to his command they will permit the Jews to keep the Sabbath and their sacred rites and that the Jews will be regarded as their friends and confederates (Ant. xiv. 10. 20),” (Sherman 1950: 8).

Laodicea had a medical college. The school was expert in using spikenard, an aromatic plant, to enhance hearing abilities. It was also notable for manufacturing eye powder (ointment) from Phrygian stones to cure astigmatism, a common and usually minor eye condition that causes blurred or distorted vision” (www.nhs.uk). The Greek term kollourion may denote a cylindrical collyrium. Two of its famous physicians, Zeuxis and Alexander Philalethes, names appeared on the coins of the city.

Laodicea was dependent on external water supply. The city didn’t have any cold spring water of its own. The temperature of the water supply was tepid (lukewarm). Porter says, “Since the Laodiceans had no natural springs for freshwater or at least not enough for their growing population, they likely were forced to pipe in whatever water they could. And this water was probably transported to them lukewarm from the outset” (Porter 1987: 147). From archeological records, Laodicea constructed a water tower that stored water through an aqueduct. “The water may have come from hot springs, of which there are many in the neighborhood, and have been cooled down to lukewarmness; but even if it was originally cold, the heat of the sun no doubt warmed it until it was flat and unpalatable” (Sherman 1950: 11). The great expense of their engineering skills only brought them lukewarm water. The water of Laodicea was neither cold for drinking (like the springs of Colosse) nor hot (like the hot medicinal spring of Hierapolis) for bathing. It was unsatisfactory for drinking and nauseating to the stomach. In other words, the lukewarm water was not a genuine drinking water.

The historiographical sketch of Laodicea provides a good lens for understanding the metaphorical description of the church in Laodicea (Rev 3, 14-22).


*Antiochus II Theos was a Greek king of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire who reigned from 261 to 246 BC. He succeeded his father Antiochus I Soter in the winter of 262–61 BC (Wikipedia).

Porter, Stanley E. “Why The Laodiceans Received Lukewarm Water (Revelation 3:15-18)”. Tyndale Bulletin 38 (1987) 143-149.

Sherman, Johnson E. “Laodicea and Its Neighbors”. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Feb., 1950), pp. 1-18.


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